Images, Sounds, and Video: Teach Students How to Read Online

This blog post is part of a series focusing on media literacy.

Once upon a time, stories were simple. We opened a book and read words printed in ink on paper. Maybe a couple of pictures would be on the page. 

Now think about what you find when you read online. Quite a different animal, right? We talked about internet literacy in a previous post. There is another aspect of the internet that is worth noting: sound, image, and video are everywhere. Every web search takes us to pages that contain words and much more. This changes the nature of reading. We find articles with sound and video attached, printed words accompanied by spoken words, and podcasts and videos with soundtracks. These additions to the words we are reading dramatically affect how we interpret those words. To be media literate, then, it is imperative to understand how sound, image, and video impact us.

Using sound and image to manipulate is not new. Years ago, I taught my students to be aware of how advertisers were crafting commercials to influence their behavior. I wanted students to become active, critical consumers of what they saw, rather than passive, unthinking receivers of commercial bombardment. That goal is even more important now because the bombardment from the online world far exceeds that from television.

Share these ideas with students.

Images have power and are chosen for a reason.

Do a web search for images only. Search “Adopt a pet.” What do you notice about all the images? Adorable kittens and puppies, dogs with cute expressions, animals that look hopeful—in other words, pets you have to have. Now search “World’s ugliest dog contest.” (Yes, there is such a thing.) What would happen if you replaced the pictures at the adoption sites with these pictures? Search for images about some place. For example, have some students search “The best of New York City” and others “The worst of New York City.” Is it a place you want to visit or not? Depends on the images you are shown, right? 

In my civics class, I would have students search “Good [insert name of president] pictures” and “Bad [insert name of president] pictures.” I’d ask them to be aware of the pictures accompanying any articles they read and think about whether the pictures chosen are designed to influence what you think of the president.

Pay attention to the soundtrack.

We don’t usually think about it, but soundtracks are everywhere. I was watching sports recently. The music leading to breaks during the NFL game was quite different than the music used at the golf tournament. The football music is bold and loud while the golf music is stately and calm. Why? What does the music say about the target audience?

Have students notice sound and discuss how sound affects mood. Do a web search of “how music can change a scene” or “how music can change a movie.” One of my favorites is a YouTube video where the creator has added different soundtracks to the same film clip.  Search “changing a movie soundtrack to make it scary.” One result makes “The Sound of Music” seem like a horror film simply by changing the music of the movie’s preview.

Use sound and image purposefully.

A teacher asked her students to create a podcast. Part of the requirement was to include sound and image. Students discovered that GarageBand, a podcast creation tool on Apple devices, has a lot of music that can be easily be added. Students had a blast listening to all the options and finally selected a 20-second soundtrack that amused them. It looped 15 times during their five-minute show. Yes, I got sick of hearing it—but more importantly, it added absolutely nothing to the message presented. Don’t let students use sound and image haphazardly.

Analyze video.

You didn’t go to the UCLA film school, but you don’t have to be an expert to help students understand that video is a collection of sound and image. I still enjoy “A Pep Talk from Kid President to You.” Show it to students. Discuss the message of the video, and then discuss the video. Did the music help the message? Why did he film it in a locker room and in front of a chalkboard with X’s and O’s instead of, say, a shopping mall? Why zoom in on his face and then zoom out? Every decision was made for a reason.

Show students political commercials at The Living Room Candidate. Notice the use of sound and image selection used to sell presidential candidates. The cell division video you show students in science? That can be analyzed, too. How did the sound and images and montage help you understand mitosis?

Bottom line: Reading online is more complex than reading a book. We have to “read” sound and image, and to be literate today means understanding how they impact messages. You’ll find that these are fun and easy lessons to teach, and students will love becoming media literate.

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Blog contributor Erik Palmer is an author on HMH's new K-12 Into Reading and Into Literature programs.